Review: Umbria Jazz Festival

Bob Weir reports back on the jam-packed 40th Umbria Jazz Festival, with highlights including Keith Jarrett, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Gregory Porter

This was the festival's 40th anniversary and it coincided with the birthdays of founder Carlo Pagnotta, its “foreign ambassador” Enzo Capua and two of our more colourful travelling companions - Fuji Fujioka (Coltrane discographer) and Adriano Scognamillo (master photographer). So there was lots to celebrate. The programme was suitably strong on serious jazz content alongside the usual mélange of blues, gospel, latin, funk and soul-pop, thus ensuring something for everyone.

There seemed to be two main themes this year, perhaps reflecting Carlo's taste. Piano jazz was represented in the evening main arena by the Herbie Hancock-Chick Corea Duo world exclusive (pictured), Keith Jarrett returning after his notorious walkout six years ago (another anniversary because his trio with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette celebrated 30 years together) and Stefano Bollani with symphony orchestra playing Gershwin, Bernstein and Ravel. Piano was also prominent in the early evening and midnight shows in the beautiful Teatro Morlacchi with outstanding sessions by Hiromi, Robert Glasper and the young Enrico Zanisi. 

The theatre was also the setting for a series of very stimulating pairings of generational and stylistic contrasts, proving once again that great musicians invariably find common ground. Pianists Renato Sellani and Danilo Rea had fun bridging a 50-year age gap, Sardinian Paolo Fresu (t) and Cuban Omar Sosa (p) achieved a similarly high degree of musical empathy, Michel Camilo (p) and Tomatito (g) joined Latin jazz with flamenco in an exciting way, and Columbian harpist Edmar Castaneda and local clarinet virtuoso Gabriele Mirabassi were simply staggering in the quality of their impromptu inventions. 

More superior jazz was supplied by Jan Garbarek (pictured) with percussionist Trilok Curtu, Igor Butman's Moscow Jazz Orchestra and Wynton Marsalis with the Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra and vocal guests Cecile McLorin Salvant and Gregory Porter. Contemporary hard bop came from the groups of Branford Marsalis and Terence Blanchard (the latter with brilliant Kendrick Scott on drums) and the exciting band of veterans, The Cookers (David Weiss, Eddie Henderson (t), Donald Harrison, Billy Harper (s), George Cables (p), Cecil McBee (b) and Billy Hart (d)).

The featured singers included Diana Krall, Dee Dee Bridgewater (pictured) (as sassy as ever and paired with the Ramsey Lewis Trio for retreads of his old hits), charismatic soul singer/pianist John Legend, Mario Bondi (Italian soul à la Joe Cocker) and Gregory Porter's own set of mostly original songs movingly performed.

The wealth of music with more popular appeal from midday to well into the early hours on three street stages (including a new one for “Young Jazz”) and in many bars and restaurants was topped by Tuck & Patti, Rockin' Dopsie & The Zydeco Twisters, promising Australian vocalist/pianist Sarah McKenzie, Berklee College jazz clinics and a band competition. Added to all that were more street buskers of varying styles and ability than you could throw a Euro at.

Umbria's special birthday efforts and their super-efficient organisation (the concerts, like Mussolini's trains, always started on time) were rewarded by a 20 per cent increase over last year's ticket sales. I can recommend no better place to spend 10 summer days with great music in a lovely historic location. Keep an eye on for more details of this year's event and next year's programme.

Photos by Tim Dickeson

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